4 November 2015

Boualem Sansal: Harraga (2005)

Harraga, I believe, is one of only two of Boualem Sansal's novels that have been translated into English. Bizarrely, two English-speaking reviewers have described it as spoiled by 'poor storytelling'. The reviewer of one of them – in the Independent – incorrectly states that Sansal published the book in French 2006 and incorrectly suggests that he started writing following his dismissal from his government post: he in fact began writing in the 1990s, partly as a result of being encouraged to do so by his writer friend Rachid Mimouni (1945–95). The same reviewer nevertheless calls the translation 'generally excellent', although I very much doubt that she read it in French too, which would have given her a very good reason to speak of the merits of the translation – if not, then although it may be possible to guess in places if a translation is badly done, it is impossible to tell if a translation is well done without a decent knowledge of both texts: there can be a huge difference between an excellently written translation and an excellently translated book!

Enough ranting, and it's probably needless to say that I read this in the original French. Harraga literally means 'road (or route) burner', and specifically refers here to the number of (young in particular) people escaping from the horrors of Islamist rule. In the introductory page 'Au lecteur' (which inevitably reminded me of Baudelaire again) the narrator states that this is a completely true story with true names and dates, etc, telling of the misery of a world of lost faith and values. The protagonist is the thirty-five-year-old paediatrician Lamia, who lives alone in a house in Algiers: her father died of a poor heart, which was enough to finish off her mother shortly after, her elder brother Yacine is killed in a car crash, and her younger brother Sofiane has decided to escape to Europe for a proper life (OK, for a life – period).

In her teens Lamia was enticed by the charms of an older man who ditched her after use, and speaks of no other man coming into her life, which seems to be dead, and she is filled with depressive – almost insane – suicidal thoughts. Until, that is, the highly inappropriately dressed Chérifa, sixteen and heavily pregnant by (of course) an older man who has dumped her after use, knocks on her door after being sent by Sofiane (who isn't the father). Lamia's life now begins, and in a short time she is treating Chérifa as a mother would, very swiftly developing a love of her.

Unfortunately Lamia's motherliness is a little too stern, and Chérifa thinks she isn't wanted, so leaves, and Lamia falls into an even deeper depression. And then Chérifa, even more pregnant, returns and lights up Lamia's life again, although the girl disappears once more and can't be can't be found. Until her life changes when she receives a phone call from a nun in the Notre-Dame-des-Pauvres convent. There Lamia weeps over Chérifa's simple grave, but leaves with baby Louiza (yes, another Sansal adoption), named after a long gone school friend of hers. Her life as a mother – in fact her 'real' life – begins.

But not before some very strong insults spoken to the understanding sisters about the nature of the barbarians in Algeria, whom she calls 'wicked, hateful, satanic and dirty'. When the mother superior advises Lamia to moderate her language for her own good, the outspoken but tactful Lamia replies that she knows when to be a hypocrite when it's necessary.

Dazzlingly written, Harraga is told throughout in the first person and although the novel doesn't contain the verbal fireworks of his other works, there are two very long hallmark digressions: one to describe the motley history of Lamia's house, and another when Lamia watches a television programme on harragas, who are noted for losing their lives when trying to cross the Mediterranean, and where many of them could easily be Sofiane.

My other posts on Boualem Sansal:

Boualem Sansal: 2084 : La fin du monde
Boualem Sansal: Rue Darwin
Boualem Sansal: Le Village de l'Allemand
Boualem Sansal: Dis-moi le paradis
Boualem Sansal: L'Enfant fou de l'arbre creux
Boualem Sansal: Le Serment des barbares

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